Oftentimes all it takes is a smile and a hot meal to brighten their day, to sustain their body and soul.

Meals on Wheels has been bringing both to Collin County residents for the past three decades.

And Mary Headrick has been there nearly every step of the way.

“She makes sure the meals get out, so she’s very important,” said Zella Tyson, CEO of Meals on Wheals of Collin County. “She’s a pillar of the organization.”

Fellow staff members and volunteers surprised Headrick recently with a celebration of the food services director’s 25th year with Meals on Wheels.

The nonprofit provides at least one meal every weekday for residents who cannot buy or prepare their own. Some even receive frozen meals on Thursday or Friday to hold them over until Monday. Clients pay what they’re able to pay.

Of course most are seniors. They’re not necessarily poor but simply unable to drive to get groceries. Or they can’t reach the top of the cupboard.

They’re alone and easily forgotten.

“Everybody wants to do for children, especially around the holidays,” said Peggy Click, a Meals on Wheels board member who organized Headrick’s 25th anniversary party. “But not a lot of people want to help older folks.”

Stationed out of an unassuming one-story building north of the downtown McKinney square, the operation stretches far and wide: It served over 260,000 meals – close to 1,200 meals a day – to 1,400 clients throughout Collin County. Just four years ago, that number was barely 160,000 meals, according to Tyson.

About 30 staff members and over 1,000 volunteers run the daily operation. Volunteers pick up meals at different drop sites around the county, then deliver them to their respective regions.

It all starts in the kitchen in McKinney, with Headrick. Starting at 5 a.m. each day, she guides four cooks as they crank out 1,000 meals in under five hours – nutritious and delicious, constantly varied meals, too.

“We don’t repeat the main dish within a month,” Headrick said. “We recently got wings on the menu.”

Reginald Allen is Headrick’s floor supervisor in the kitchen. The former culinary student drives from Oak Cliff each morning for a job – under a boss – he says he thoroughly enjoys.

“She’s got a passion and a good heart for the seniors,” Allen said of Headrick. “She always tries to go above and beyond.”

It’s an approach board chairman Ray Ricchi noticed the first day he walked into Meals on Wheels’ headquarters. Every staff member and volunteer carries out Headrick’s inspiration, doing the job “with a lot of love and care,” Ricchi noted, calling Headrick a “mainstay of this operation for a long, long time.”

Volunteers personally bring the meals to a client’s door, often the only person that client will see all day.

But that personal connection depends upon increased community awareness and support. Federal, state and county funds steadily dip most years, Ricchi said, with hundreds of nonprofits competing for dollars.

Meals on Wheels relies on such grants and private donations to operate.

“The money is going down and down,” Ricchi said.

Seems to be, the county will find a way to keep it going, though. As long as there’s enough money, Meals on Wheels will keep bringing smiles and hot meals to the seemingly forgotten ones.

Headrick has never forgotten them – and likely never will. She only half-jokingly said another 25 years is the plan.

And her mission?

“Feed more people,” she said.